The pulse was thrumming. The lights were flashing. The roar was deafening. It was a night like any other in Pittsburgh.
Until it wasn’t.
Emmett was with Ted in Babylon when he felt his cellular vibrate in his skin-tight leather pants.
“Oh! Whoever said you shouldn’t have too much of a good thing obviously never experienced vibrating phones!”
Ted rolled his eyes, taking a sip of his drink.
“Hello?” he answered, leaning against the bar whilst smirking at the twink who was making eyes at him from the other end. He ignored Ted’s scoff.
“Not really your type, is he?”
“A girl can look,” he said, before returning to his phone.
“Em, a-are you there?”
“Michael! Get your ass down here; you shouldn’t be at home moping!”
“Em – listen …”
“No! I won’t hear any excuses! Dr. Dream Boat may be gone, but you’re still here and so are your dancing –”
“I’m in the ER with Brian.”
Emmett felt his blood run cold. It was as if someone replaced the blood and alcohol running through his veins with ice. He tightened his grip on his phone.
“Is he OK?”
“He’s … no, I’m not sure, but it’s not him that’s hurt.”
“Oh, no – it’s not Deb –?”
“No, no. Ma is fine. Emmett, listen to me. You and Ted need to get here immediately, but first I need you to go get Ma. Justin was … fuck, Emmett. He was bashed .”
Emmett slowly slipped out of the context of the situation. Justin … bashed. Sweet, young – albeit a bit naive – Justin.
“Watch where you’re going, f****t!” yelled a boy that he had never seen before.
“I’m not … so what if I am?” said Emmett, trying his best to sound assertive.
His father was trying to teach him not to be a sissy.
“Go to Hell, you queer,” snorted another one.
“I’ll see you there,” muttered Emmett.
“WHAT DID YOU FUCKING SAY TO ME?”
The first boy slammed him into the alleyway wall, knocking the wind out of him.
“You like this, don’t you f**?” the boy sneered. “You’re practically begging for it.”
Emmett felt the boy cup him and closed his eyes, grimacing in pain. No … not like this. He was only 12 …
“What are you boys doing?” asked a voice, sharply.
The first boy and his crew scattered. Emmett opened his eyes to see the postal man standing there with a look of contempt. He opened his mouth to speak – to thank him, to say anything – but before he could, the man spat at him and walked away.
Wiping his cheeks, Emmett continued home.
“Em? Emmett!” he heard Michael cry from the other end of the line and Ted from next to him.
He looked over at Ted who was eyeing him in alarm. Emmett flinched as Ted reached out to wipe his cheek with the pad of his thumb.
“We’ll be there soon, Michael.”
Ted watched as Emmett took the call and the light in his eyes dulled. He knew that Michael was on the other end of the line and that something was seriously wrong, but he couldn’t figure out for sure what happened.
“Em?” he said, tentatively.
Emmett was in another place now, though. Almost as if he entered a trance, and it scared Ted.
“Emmett?” he said a little more forcefully.
Ted grew more panicked when he saw tears welling up in Emmett’s eyes and starting to fall down his carefully moisturized cheeks.
“Emmett!” he finally shouted. No one around them paid them any mind – no, they could be screaming on fire right now, for all they cared. No one gave a flying fuck if someone’s mouth was doing anything other than sucking them off.
However, it got Emmett’s attention.
Ted reached out to gently wipe away a stray tear, but Emmett flinched away. He withdrew his hand, more than slightly hurt.
“We’ll be there soon, Michael,” said Emmett. His voice was now cold and detached. Ted watched as Emmett hung up the phone and motioned for the older man to follow him.
“Emmett, what’s going on?” said Ted, tailing him out of the club and into the alleyway.
“No time to explain, Ted.”
Ted was taken aback. It was rare that Emmett called him by his given name rather than “Teddy”, a nickname he was fond of only when Emmett used it.
“Emmett, stop .” He grabbed Emmett by the wrist and spun him around. As he looked at the taller man, he saw something misplaced in his eyes.
Something wild and not in the “I don’t give a fuck what anyone thinks of me” kind of way that Ted always envied.
“What’s going on?” repeated Ted, but now more softly.
That seemed to do the trick.
“It’s Justin,” wailed Emmett, covering his eyes with the heels of his hands. “He was bashed and now they’re in the ER and they don’t know if he’s going to be okay.”
The pieces started fitting together. Ted didn’t have to ask who Emmett was referring to as “they.” Tonight was the night of Justin’s prom and when he and Emmett had called to see if Brian was coming out with them, Brian had said that he had unfinished business.
He must have gone to surprise Justin and –
“Son of a bitch,” muttered Ted.
“What? What is it?”
“You know who did this, don’t you?” said Ted. “ Think , Emmett. Brian had plans and tonight was Justin’s prom. Who was also attending that prom who has an axe to grind with both of them?”
Ted watched as the remaining blood drained from Emmett’s face.
“Chris – fucking – Hobbs.”
“You bet your ass, Chris fucking Hobbs. Come on, I’ll drive.”
“We have to go get Deb first,” said Emmett, getting in on the passenger’s side.
“It’s going to be a long night.”
“Hello?” groaned Melanie.
“Mel, it’s Emmett.”
“Emmett, do you realize it’s –?”
“Put me on speaker. I need to speak with you and Lindsay.”
He didn’t sound right – Melanie could tell that much. Which is why she did as she was asked.
“What’s up, Em?” yawned Lindsay, rolling over in bed.
“Justin’s in the hospital.” The two women shot up, now wide awake. “Ted and I are headed to get Deb now. Jennifer should be with her, but we wanted to let you know what’s happening.”
“What happened to him?” said Melanie, anxiously. She felt as though she was going to be sick. In such a short amount of time, Justin integrated seamlessly into their chosen family. A sweet, hopelessly optimistic as far as Brian was concerned, soul that they all adored.
“He was attacked.”
Melanie’s heart ached at those words. Though it only scratched the surface of the pain and guilt felt by Lindsay. Lindsay, who had begun to see Justin as another child. Who had already begun to see the changes and growth blossom from within him as he matured.
“What can we –?” began Lindsay. Brian was her next thought.
Fuck … Brian. Brian who must have gone to Justin’s prom …
“Nothing tonight,” they heard Ted say aloud. “It’ll just be everyone sitting in the waiting room. Stay with Gus. We’ll let you know if anything changes.”
“How’s Brian?” asked Lindsay, meekly. She felt Melanie squeeze her hand.
“Physically, he’s fine,” said Emmett after an intolerably long pause.
Lindsay let out a shuddery breath at that.
“Keep us posted,” said Melanie, her heart beating out of her chest. Tonight was supposed to be one of the most carefree, fun nights of Justin’s life. “And send the others our love. Understood?”
The boys verbally affirmed and then the line went dead. The two women held onto each other.
“I … It’s my fault,” gasped Lindsay. “I convinced Brian that he should go make Justin’s night. If … What if Justin was attacked because of that? What if he …”
She couldn’t bring herself to say the words, which was fine. Melanie couldn’t bear to hear them.
“Hey,” said Melanie, urgently. “We have to remain positive. For Justin and Brian’s sake.” Lindsay looked at her with teary eyes. “Past and present animosity aside, anyone with eyes can see just how much he cares about Justin. Even if he won’t admit it. Nothing about tonight is your fault.”
“It shouldn’t have happened,” whimpered Lindsay.
Melanie kissed the top of her head.
“No, it shouldn’t have.”
“And your mother never found out?”
“Are you kidding?” said Debbie, laughing at Jennifer’s amazed expression. “I perfected sneaking out of the house by the age of 12. And Vic knew what was good for him and never said a word.”
Jennifer just shook her head, laughing as well while the two women exchanged their teenage rebellion stories over tea.
Just then, the doorbell rang.
“Be right back,” said Debbie.
“Em! Ted! Strike out so soon?” she said, teasingly.
Then she noticed Ted’s grim expression and Emmett’s bloodshot eyes.
“What happened?” she said, immediately reaching for her coat. “Where’s Michael?”
“He’s fine,” choked out Emmett. Then his voice seemed to die.
“It’s Justin,” sighed Ted. “Michael and Brian are with him at the hospital. He was attacked at his prom tonight.”
Debbie felt the two men quickly steady her when she stumbled in place. Her mind was suddenly kicked into overdrive.
Sunshine. Attacked. Hospital.
“Jennifer,” she whispered, looking back in the direction of the kitchen. She felt tears forming.
No , she thought to herself. Keep it together. You can’t fall to pieces now. Not now .
She turned back to Ted. “Get the car ready. Em, come with me.”
“Hi Emmett,” greeted Jennifer, cheerily. “What’s –?”
“Jennifer, honey, we have to go,” said Debbie.
Jennifer froze, lowering her cup of tea from her lips. She and Debbie were still relatively new friends, but she didn’t like the look that Debbie was giving her. Something was terribly wrong.
“Where?” she said, hearing the shake in her voice.
Debbie sat down beside her, grabbing the blonde’s now-free hands.
Jennifer felt as though something died inside of her at those words. Her worst nightmare.
“He – what ? No … he can't – he’s at his prom .” Jennifer dropped Debbie’s hands and stood, feeling the room spin around her. Emmett immediately steadied her. “What –?”
“We’ll find out more in the car,” said Debbie, firmly. “We’ll get through this, honey, but we have to go now .”
Jennifer nodded, though she hardly registered Debbie’s following words of instruction. She let herself get ushered by the two while she switched onto autopilot. Part of her vaguely thought about calling Craig. The other part of her knew someone needed to stay with Molly and that he would only make things worse.
Jennifer needed to get to her boy.
“Drink this,” said Michael, offering Brian a cup of water.
The blood-stained, grief-stricken man remained silent. His lips, pressed into a thin line, didn’t open and Michael wasn't fully sure that Brian even heard him moments ago.
“Brian, you have to drink,” insisted Michael. “The last thing anyone wants is to see you in a hospital bed, too.”
Brian continued staring ahead, unblinking. If it weren’t so terrifying, Michael may have felt impressed by his single-minded focus.
That got Brian’s attention. Michael watched as his oldest friend looked up at a stone-faced Daphne. Even in her poofy dress and all 5-foot-nothing of her, she managed to command attention from Brian.
She merely pointed at the drink, no nonsense in her makeup smeared eyes. After a lengthy pause, Brian accepted the cup. After an all-too-short sip, he lowered it again.
Better than nothing, Michael supposed.
“Do you want to sit?” he asked her, tentatively.
“Couldn’t if I wanted to,” was her only response. “My mom’s a basket-case – I only convinced her to let me stay here by saying I’d call with updates.”
“You can use my phone next time.”
She smiled, though it was more like a grimace, and nodded in thanks.
Michael and Daphne’s heads whipped around at the source of the voice. Daphne was promptly embraced by a distraught Jennifer, who Michael suspected was only held upright by Daphne at that moment.
“How did you —?”
“Deb, Emmett and Ted,” said Jennifer, immediately. “They’re all in the main lobby. They only let me through here.”
“They’re in there with him,” said Daphne, giving an answer to the unspoken question. “They said that they would come out as soon as there was an update.”
Jennifer nodded and then her eyes landed on Brian, and she let out a choked sob.
Brian was still covered in Justin’s blood. Having not witnessed the attack, Michael could only imagine how that much blood got on him. Brian had to have held Justin close to him until the paramedics arrived at the scene. Looking closer, Michael could even see a noticeable amount of blood around Brian’s lips, which made his heart ache more for his friend.
“Is he –?” Jennifer trailed off. How does one end that sentence?
“He hasn’t spoken since he called me,” said Michael. “One of the nurses said that he’s in shock, but he refuses to move or get treated.”
“What happened ?” hissed Jennifer.
“Are you Justin Taylor’s mother?” a nurse said at the same moment.
“Yes,” said Jennifer immediately.
“Please come with me.”
Michael and Daphne watched as she entered a separate room.
Then, Michael made eye contact with Daphne.
“I need to go talk to the others. Tell them that they may as well head home,” he said. “Could you stay with him?”
Daphne nodded, walking over and taking Michael’s seat.
Of all the ways that she expected her and Justin’s prom night to end, Daphne never could have imagined what actually occurred. Now, as she sat feeling lost in her prom attire, she felt some peculiar sense of companionship with Brian.
“It’s not your fault,” she said, finally. She felt him tense beside her – the only indication that he not only heard, but possibly registered her words. “This is all on fucking Chris Hobbs.”
The night was coming to an end, at least as far as Daphne was concerned. She, Justin, and a few other tolerable people from their class were planning on ditching early and getting decent food. The only thing was, she wasn’t sure where Justin was at that point.
That’s not true , she chuckled to herself. After his spectacular performance with Brian, he said he would see the other man off in the parking garage.
Knowing them, they were probably making out – or more – in the back seat of Brian’s car.
After waiting five more minutes, she told September that she’d be back in a few, and she left for the garage. She’d hold Justin to his word, even if she had to drag him off of Brian by his balls.
She really was a saint.
It wasn’t until she got close to the garage that she realized something was terribly wrong. For starters, workers from the venue were running in a panic back and forth. Secondly, she could hear the sirens.
But the worst of it was the screams. Brian’s screams.
“I’M GOING WITH HIM!”
“Sir, you’re not fam –”
“I DON’T GIVE A FUCK! HE’S NOT GOING ALONE.”
Daphne took in the scene in shock. Blood stains on the ground. Justin lying unconscious on a gurney. Medics tending to Chris Hobbs in the corner. The police were already sectioning off a portion of the lot. Then her eyes landed on it.
The bat. Blood-stained and motionless. Daphne felt a fury course through her veins. Her SAT scores spoke for themselves – she could put two-and-two together, especially after the near misses with Hobbs over the past school year.
“Sir, step ba –” the medic tried again.
“I’M NOT LEA –”
“You better listen to him,” she said, coolly. Daphne was amazed by the steadiness of her voice.
Brian’s head whipped around and so did the medic’s.
“Ma’am, go back ins –”
“Like hell. That’s my prom date and best friend inside that ambulance. You know, the one whose injuries you’re not treating because you’re arguing semantics with this man.”
“Justin may be 18, but he’s still in high school. His mother still needs to be notified, but she has left him in Brian’s care this past year. Let him go with him.”
“Fine,” sighed the medic, exasperatedly. “Get in, now. But not you,” the medic added to Daphne.
Brian strode over to her quickly and hugged her tightly, which she returned. They both knew that he meant more to Justin, and vice versa, than as simply a guardianship role. But they both also knew how the world worked.
“You’ll be –?” he began, and she shook her head.
“I’ll get my friend to drive me. Go,” she insisted. “Stay with him.”
He nodded, and she watched as he hopped onto the ambulance once the gurney was loaded. Before they closed the door, she saw him take hold of Justin’s hand and whisper into his ear.
Then they were gone.
“Have some more to drink,” requested Daphne, emerging from her memories. She looked on with relief when he did as she asked. “Do you want me to take the –?”
“No,” said Brian, sharply, speaking for the first time since they left in the ambulance. As he turned to face her, his eyes managed to look both wild and dull. Lifeless, even.
Daphne nodded, abandoning the idea.
“Justin’s really lucky to have you.” Brian closed his eyes, minutely shaking his head. “Don’t start – he is, and everyone knows it. You quite possibly saved his life tonight.”
“You don’t know that.” If Daphne weren’t sitting beside Brian and listening closely, she would’ve missed that. As it was, she thought he didn’t even mean to say it aloud. Opening up didn’t track with the stories that she heard about him, but she suspected he was more vulnerable now than he ever was before in his life.
Brian was right about one thing, though. She didn’t know anything with certainty. So instead she tentatively reached for his hand. She gave it a squeeze, a mixture of relief and shock spreading over her when she felt him return the pressure and not flinch away.
So that’s how they remained.
“Michael!” gasped Debbie, tears in her eyes. She immediately walked into his arms.
Michael could feel her shaking – though that may be his own tremors, come to think of it. Eventually, he released her and took in Ted and Emmett’s ashen expressions. Michael was certain they could tell from his own face that it was bad.
“Jennifer’s speaking with a doctor now,” said Michael. “There’s really no point in sticking around, though. The only reason they let Daphne up is because she was his prom date and me because of Brian’s state.”
“Which is?” asked Emmett, tentatively.
“What’s that sensation … the one where you barely move …”
“Catatonic,” said Ted, grimacing. Michael nodded.
“He’s practically that. He … He’s covered in Justin’s blood. From his shoes t-to his – fuck, to his face.” Emmett squeezed his hand.
“You give him our love, you hear?” said Debbie, vehemently. Michael nodded.
She pulled him in for another tight hug, and he returned it. He understood it, too.
It could’ve happened to any one of them.
Brian wasn’t numb like everyone thought. He felt as though he was going to be sick. As Justin’s life hung in the balance, the only thing he knew was Daphne’s hand was keeping him grounded.
But that didn’t stop the memories.
Memories of him, Justin and Mikey running and laughing through the hospital corridor after Gus was born. Memories of him and Justin dancing in front of everyone. Everyone’s stunned faces after they kissed.
The way they danced all the way down to the parking garage. How Justin looked at him like Brian hung an entire galaxy after kissing by his car. The way Justin practically floated away.
His smile. His smile, not realizing the panic in Brian’s voice before it all went dark. His smile that made Brian understand for the first time in the last year why Debbie calls him ‘Sunshine.’
The ride in the ambulance.
There was so much blood.
It was everywhere. On Justin. All over Brian. He could even taste it on his lips, though he didn’t have a memory of how it got there.
All inhibitions cast aside, Brian took hold of Justin’s hand as soon as he entered the vehicle.
“Listen to me, you little shit,” whispered Brian, hearing his voice crack. “You said that I wasn’t rid of you until you said so. You didn’t say so yet, so don’t fucking leave.”
The doors slammed shut and they sped off to the hospital. As they arrived, feeling like hours later, Brian watched dazedly while they sped ahead with the gurney.
The phantom feeling of Justin’s hand lingered, now substituted for his soiled scarf.
Feeling outside of his own body, he fumbled in his pocket for his phone. After several long and never ending rings, the phone clicked.
“I’m at the hospital with Justin,” said Brian, his feet moving on their own accord. He remained unsure where exactly he was headed. “He was bashed over the head.”
Brian could hear Mikey’s heavy breathing on the other end. Then:
“I’ll be right there.”
“Tell the others.” Then he ended the call. Mikey would know what to do next.
“Mrs. Taylor.” Brian vaguely registered Daphne’s voice. “What did they say?”
Another set of heavier footsteps. Brian didn’t have to look to know Mikey was back.
“They … they need to drill through his sk-skull to release all of the blood,” said Jennifer. Brian felt Daphne grip his hand harder. “After that … they don’t know. They’ll likely have to put him into a medically induced coma.”
“Fuck,” exhaled Mikey.
A coma. A fucking coma. Brian wanted nothing more than to scream. He wanted to do worse than smash Chris Hobbs’ legs. He wanted to burn down the damn school that let this happen all-together. Then … he wanted to disappear.
But he could barely blink.
“So, what now?” asked Daphne, anxiously.
If Brian had the emotional bandwidth to comfort anyone, he wished at that moment that he could comfort Daphne. She was the only reason he was sitting here.
Though , he thought drolly, I’m the reason why we’re all here . No matter what she said.
Brian felt Mikey squeeze his shoulder at Jennifer’s words. But none of it meant a damn thing to him. The same words were running on a loop in his mind.
Don’t fucking leave .